April 6, 2010

Atlanta Beat 2010 - Can Youngest Team Mature Fast Enough?

Coach: Gareth O’Sullivan
2009 Record: 2010 Expansion Team

Expansion Draft (3): Leigh Ann Robinson, Amanda Cinalli, Katie Larkin.
Draft Choices (3): Tobin Heath, Blakely Mattern, Mallori Lofton-Malachi (traded then re-signed).
LA Dispersal Draft (2): Manya Makoski (IR), McCall Zerboni.
International Signings (5): Ramona Bachmann, Monica Ocampo, Johanna Rasmussen, Shelley Thompson, Mami Yamaguchi.
Free Agents (7): Stacy Bishop, Tracy Hamm, Brett Maron, Sophia Mundy, Rebecca Nolin, Marisha Schumacher-Hodge, Tracy Hamm.
Trades (3): Allison Whitworth, Kia McNeill, Angie Kerr.

While preparing to do the Atlanta preview, I was checking through their roster and something hit me, which I immediately had to recheck. If my calculations are correct, the oldest player on the Beat’s roster is Rebecca Nolin, who won’t turn 27 until the day after the season opener. Make no mistake, this is a young team and how quickly they mature and grow as a team will go a long way to indicating how successful they can be.

The inaugural version of the Atlanta Beat should also be an exciting offensive side, with a talented group of young international players. The Beat were able to sign three top players from Swedish club Umeå IK in Ramona Bachmann, Johanna Rasmussen, and Mami Yamaguchi. These three combined for 25 goals last season in the Damallsvenskan. Then Atlanta added Shelley Thompson, the leading scorer in the Frauen Bundesliga in 2004-05 with 30 goals and Monica Ocampo, a young rising star out of Mexico. For an expansion team, Atlanta will have a very good offense, but can they defend?

Goalkeeping-One of the first major moves that Atlanta made following the expansion draft was to trade for Gold Pride’s backup goalkeeper, Allison Whitworth. Whitworth performed well while stepping in for Nicole Barnhart last season. She gave up just 5 goals in 4 starts, with one of those being a penalty kick and she posted a shutout late in the season against Los Angeles. The Birmingham, Alabama native returns to play close to home for the Beat. The backup spot belongs to former Fairfield keeper Brett Maron, who saw action in 8 matches in Sweden for Kristianstads last season. Mallori Lofton-Malachi was a late addition to the roster out of South Florida and will be the developmental keeper.

Defenders-The Beat made Leigh Ann Robinson their first selection of last September’s expansion draft. The outside defender had a solid season last year for FC Gold Pride. Robinson showed the ability to get forward at times and she could develop into a top offensive threat from the back. Atlanta gave up the top selection in the LA dispersal draft for Kia McNeill and Angie Kerr. McNeill is a tall, physical defender who had a very good first season in St. Louis. Atlanta also added Blakely Mattern in the college draft. Mattern played under the radar at South Carolina, but she could develop into a good player. Tracy Hamm, Lauren Sesselmann and Rebecca Nolin were added through free agency. It appears that the Beat may use Stacy Bishop, who saw action with Boston in ‘09, on the back line.

But while Atlanta has some solid defenders, they have nowhere near the international experience found on most of the teams in WPS. This has to be a concern, especially considering the enormously talented forwards around the league. This group will have to grow into a cohesive unit in a fairly short period of time and the Beat has scheduled the busiest slate of preseason games in WPS, which should help. Whether the Beat can compete for a playoff spot may well rest with this relatively inexperienced defense.

Midfielders-There’s a lot to like about the Beat’s midfield and it starts with the face of the new franchise, Tobin Heath. Heath, who earned a gold medal before her senior season at UNC, was arguably the most talented player in college soccer last season. Atlanta didn’t pass on the chance to build their franchise around the young star. She is joined by Mami Yamaguchi, a technically adept player who is a precise passer as well. Yamaguchi was the winner of the 2007 MAC Hermann Award while at Florida State. The Beat traded for Angie (Woznuk) Kerr from Saint Louis and she has national team experience as well, although she surprisingly didn’t give Athletica a lot of offense last season.

The loss of experienced midfielder Manya Makoski hurts, but Atlanta added depth with two former Sol players, McCall Zerboni and Katie Larkin, and a former Breaker, Sophia Mundy. And although Amanda Cinalli is listed as a forward, she could return as an attacking midfielder, which is where she spent most of last season in St. Louis with 2 goals to her credit, both game winners. With this group, the Beat have a chance to control many a game in the midfield.

Forwards-At just 19 years of age, Swiss prodigy Ramona Bachmann is being proclaimed as the next Marta. I don’t know if she’ll be that good, but she’s getting there. Bachmann led Umeå with 14 goals last season. She notched a goal and an assist in just 35 minutes of action against Saint Louis in the Beat’s final exhibition game. She gives Atlanta instant offense and when teamed with fellow European forwards, Johanna Rasmussen of Denmark and Shelley Thompson of Germany, will give opposing defenses a lot to worry about.

Thompson comes to the Beat with nearly a decade of experience in Germany. Rasmussen, who had 18 assists last year with Umeå, may play wing if Coach Gareth O’Sullivan chooses to play a 4-4-2. Another forward, Monica Ocampo, scored 8 goals and 11 assists last season with W-League entry FC Indiana. The Beat are loaded with offensive talent.

Summary-After watching the trio of Bachmann, Rasmussen, and Thompson cause frequent problems for Athletica’s back line last weekend, I’m convinced that Atlanta’s offense can be as good as any team in the league. The Beat were able to defeat Saint Louis without Tobin Heath’s presence. With Yamaguchi and Heath controlling the midfield, the Beat could be a formidable offensive side.

But it is with Atlanta’s defense where my concern lies. Whitworth is an able keeper as she proved last year. However, the defense has no international experience, and outside of Robinson and McNeill, very little WPS experience. The fast, skilled forwards of WPS will surely test them early and often. The key to Atlanta’s season may well hinge on how well the defense matures as a unit.